"Climate change is an existential crisis," Sen. Elizabeth Warren declared Tuesday, unveiling her plan to fight climate change in advance of CNN's interminable townhall event on the topic with 10 Democratic presidential candidates.
The use of the term "existential crisis" is ironic. No doubt, they mean "existential threat," i.e. that global warming threatens to end life on Earth. It doesn't. But we'll get back to that in a second.
The term existential crisis comes from psychology or philosophy, not environmental science. An existential crisis is when you're overcome with panic or dread about your place in the world or your purpose in the universe. If you're depressed and ask, "What's it all about?" you might be having an existential crisis.
A giant asteroid barreling toward Earth is an existential threat, midlife adultery is a sign of an existential crisis.
The irony is that concern over climate change - which is a real and legitimate concern - seems more derived from an existential crisis than an existential threat.
At the CNN event, many of the Democratic candidates insisted that life on Earth was at stake. Warren said climate change is an "existential threat" that "threatens all life on this planet." According to Sen. Bernie Sanders, "We are dealing with what the scientists call an existential threat to this planet, and we must respond aggressively; we must listen to the scientists. That is what our plan does."
That's not true. Our quality of life on Earth might be threatened, but our existence isn't. Now, of course, something can come up far short of an extinction-level event and still be really, really bad. But the idea that all life on this planet is in jeopardy if America doesn't wean itself from fossil fuels is just hyperbole. And even if America did exactly that, there's little reason to believe the rest of the world would follow suit.
Still, if we take them literally, not just seriously, they're saying we're doomed if we don't implement some version of the Green New Deal - a sweeping, wildly expensive, hodgepodge of proposals first unveiled by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that aims to eliminate carbon emissions inside of 12 years.
And yet, both Sanders and Warren (and others) are against using nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions. "In my administration, we won't be building new nuclear plants," Warren declared. "We will start weaning ourselves off nuclear and replace it with renewables," by 2035. Sanders called nuclear power a "false solution" and vowed to end it.
It's an odd argument. Sanders says we must "listen to the scientists," but there are scads of scientists who think nuclear waste storage is eminently manageable, including the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. They report that the "consensus" is that safe geological storage is entirely feasible.
More importantly, if you honestly believe that climate change is an existential threat, akin to an impending asteroid strike, why would you rule out one of the only proven tools to combat it? It's a bit like refusing to use a firehose on a burning orphanage because you're afraid of the subsequent water damage.
There are plenty of people who despise nuclear weapons and want to see them eradicated. But it would be hard to take such people seriously if they argued against sending nuclear missiles into deep space to head off an extinction-level asteroid impact.
All the Green New Deal proposals are sold as huge economic bonanzas, offering lavish subsidies for displaced workers, socialized medicine and other improvements to our quality of life.
And this is what I mean by the existential crisis underlying the alleged existential threat of climate change.
According to the Washington Post, in July, Saikat Chakrabarti, who then was Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff, admitted that, "The interesting thing about the Green New Deal is it wasn't originally a climate thing at all." The Post reported that, in a meeting with Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), Chakrabarti said: "Do you guys think of it as a climate thing? Because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing."
Climate change is not the hoax that some claim it is. But to the extent that it's a crisis, people like Sanders, Cortez and Warren want to use it as an excuse to radically transform the American economy and political system along lines that have less to do with climate change and much to do with their ideological animosity to the status quo.
And when the fight against climate change conflicts with their fight for "social justice," it's climate change that takes a backseat.
The existential threat is the excuse for fixing the existential crisis of the American left.